While the backstory for the early installments of the Street Fighter series established that Ryu and Ken trained under the same martial arts master and that the master was killed by his brother, the identity of this character was originally unnamed. The character Gouken was conceived to serve this role in the Masaomi Kanzaki manga Street Fighter II: Ryu, an adaptation of the original Street Fighter II show cased in Japan's Family Computer Magazine (and later adapted into English under the simplified title Street Fighter II). In the storyline of the book, Gouken trained Ryu and Ken in his temple somewhere in the Japanese wilderness. One day, Akuma stormed Gouken's dojo and killed him, leaving Ryu and Ken with the duty to avenge their master's death. While the novel took liberties with the established canon of the games, Gouken's character would be adapted in the storyline of the later games in the series following Akuma's introduction in Super Street Fighter II Turbo.
Other characters were also conceived to fill the role of Ryu and Ken's mentor in licensed adaptations. Goutetsu (轟鉄, Gōtetsu) in Street Fighter II: The Anime Movie, which was released shortly after Super Street Fighter II Turbo in Japan, is mentioned to be Ryu and Ken's master when their vital statistics are compared in a scene. Although Goutetsu was also introduced in Akuma's background story in Super Turbo as well, in the video game canon he serves the role of Gouken and Akuma's sensei. Also filling a similar role is Gou-un (豪雲, Gōun) in the 1995 manga Street Fighter II V Retsuden by Yasushi Baba (a loose adaptation of the TV anime series Street Fighter II V serialzed at Comic Bon Bon). In Retsuden, Gou-un was the assistant instructor who taught Ryu how to perform a Hadouken.
The instruction manual for the American and European versions of Street Fighter II for the SNES identified Ryu and Ken's master under the name of Sheng Long, a name derived from a mistranslation of Ryu's victory phrase in the arcade version of the game ("You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance"), which was also basis of the hoax character of the same name. In fact, Sheng Long is the Mandarin pronunciation of the first two kanji characters in Shōryūken (昇龍拳), the Japanese name of the Dragon Punch, one of Ryu and Ken's special techniques. Shōryūken, or shēng lóng quán in Mandarin, means "Rising Dragon Fist".
Gouken makes his first full-fledged appearance as a fighter in the arcade version of Street Fighter IV, where he appears as a secret computer-controlled challenger. His presence in the game was hinted months before his official appearance in the game, with Street Fighter IV project manager Natsuki Shiozawa showing a silhouetted illustration in her blog, claiming that the character was "Sheng Long", as well as the character being featured in an animated teaser for the console versions of Street Fighter IV and in Akuma's ending in the game. In the home versions of Street Fighter IV he becomes a selectable character.
According to the backstory that was developed for Super Street Fighter II Turbo and the Street Fighter Alpha series, Gouken and Akuma learned a murderous martial art style from their master, Goutetsu. It included the special techniques the Hadouken, the Shoryuken and the Tatsumaki Senpukyaku, 20 years before the Street Fighter tournament. After Goutetsu was killed by Akuma, Gouken refined these special techniques, eliminating the "murderous energy" they possessed, and developed them into a purely combative martial art. He would then teach this new style to two students, Ryu and Ken. Gouken also trained Dan at one time, but then expelled him after seeing that Dan was motivated by revenge.
Gouken makes an appearance in Akuma's ending in the original Street Fighter Alpha, in which he is depicted as a white-bearded old man with bushy eyebrows. Akuma's dialogue exchange with Ryu in Street Fighter Alpha 2 suggest that Akuma killed Gouken prior to the events of the Alpha series. Suzaku Castle, Ryu's home stage in the Street Fighter II series, Street Fighter Alpha 2, and Street Fighter III 3rd Strike, is the apparent resting place of Gouken.
In Street Fighter IV, Capcom retconned that Gouken had survived his battle with Akuma and was still alive. In Gouken's animated opening he reveals that after losing in battle to Akuma he did not die but was simply rendered unconscious for an extended period of time. Gouken survived the Shun Goku Satsu by completely emptying his soul of emotions, which left him in a deep coma. He is shown watching as Ryu and Ken walk off, believing him, Gouken, to be dead. He is not concerned, however, what Ryu and Ken believe as he knows that their path is a righteous one and that he looks forward to reuniting with them once more someday. Gouken's mid-game cutscene show him confront Ryu, much to Ryu's disbelief, for a friendly master versus student spar in which Gouken is victorious. In his animated ending, Gouken faces Ryu again, finding that his student is being overtaken by the murderous energy, defeats him and suppresses, after which he notices Akuma is in the area. He also appears again in Akuma's animated ending. In this scene, after Ryu has been defeated by Gouken, Akuma appears and challenges his brother to a fight to the death with the winner claiming Ryu. Gouken also reveals that he has reached a new level of mastery known as "the power of nothingness" (無の拳, Mu no Ken) and has now become even stronger, to the point where Akuma stops his Raging Demon attack after sensing Gouken's power of Nothingness.
Gouken's special techniques in Street Fighter IV include the Gō Hadōken (剛波動拳, "Strong Surge Fist", spelled with a different kanji from Akuma's version), a variation of the Hadōken projectile techniques which he performs with only one hand, in addition to being able to launch them at an angle and delay their release (he can throw two at the same time as an EX Move as well); the Senkū Gōshōha (閃空剛衝波, "Warping Strong Pierce Wave"), a technique in which Gouken advances (while passing through attacks and fireballs) towards his opponent in a pose similar to Akuma's Ashura Senkuu pose in Street Fighter EX and attacks with a powerful palm; the Tatsumaki Gō Rasen (竜巻剛螺旋, "Strong Tornado Spiral"), a vertical version of the Tatsumaki Senpū Kyaku; and the Kūchū Tatsumaki Senpū Kyaku (空中竜巻旋風脚, "Aerial Tornado Whirlwind Kick"). While Gouken doesn't use the Dragon Punch as a regular special technique, his Super Combo is the Kinjite Shōryūken (禁じ手・昇龍拳, "Forbidden Hand ・ Rising Dragon Fist"), while his Ultra Combo is the Shin Shōryūken (真・昇龍拳, "True Rising Dragon Fist"), which was originally one of Ryu's Super Arts from the Street Fighter III games and a Super Combo in Street Fighter Alpha 3. In addition, he also has Ryu's Denjin Hadōken (電刃波動拳, " Lightning Blade Surge Fist") as a second Ultra Combo in Super Street Fighter IV.
In addition to his debut in the Masaomi Kanzaki's manga adaptation of Street Fighter II, Gouken also played a role in Masahiko Nakahira's manga adaptations of Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III: Ryu Final, where he appears in flashbacks involving Ryu and Ken's training days. The Alpha manga differs from the back-story of the games in which it was Goutetsu, rather Gouken, who refined their martial art from an art of assassination to a pure martial art. In addition, the manga also established that Gouken forbade Ryu and Ken the use of the Shōryūken. Ryu Final depicts the battle between Gouken and Akuma, which results in the destruction of a forest and the collapse of a hill. The prayer beads worn by Akuma are the same ones that originally belonged to Gouken. Gouken also appears in the Street Fighter episode "The World's Greatest Warrior", with his character design being similar to those in prior Street Fighter manga.
Gouken's role in UDON Entertainment's Street Fighter comic series is much the same as his official story. Gouken raised Ryu, an orphaned boy, in the ways of his martial art. During his training, Gouken committed himself to teaching Ryu only the non-lethal arts, sparing him from the darkness that would come from teaching him the full range of techniques (the side that embraces the Satsui no Hadō, or "Killing Intent"). He also would train the son of an American businessman, Ken Masters, much in the same way. Gouken maintains a difference in philosophy from his brother, Akuma, who believes that the only true mastery comes from training in all facets of their art. This eventually leads to his death during Ryu's absence from the dojo to attend the first Street Fighter tournament. Akuma challenges Gouken to a mortal battle and Gouken is defeated. For the remainder of the comic series, Ryu dedicates himself to forcing out the negativity that wells up within him and adhering to his master's precepts and teachings of humanity and respect for one's opponent. However, he also yearns to avenge Gouken's death and will seek out Akuma at any cost. This all comes to a head at the conclusion of the series (during the third series of comics, Street Fighter II Turbo) when Ryu is attending M. Bison's Street Fighter tournament. Akuma intervenes before the final battle of the tournament between Ryu and Bison and defeats Bison so he may fight Ryu. The two clash but Akuma still overpowers Ryu. Before he can land the final blow, Gouken's spirit is revived and engages a shocked Akuma. The two warriors battle to an unseen conclusion.
Japanese actors Akira Koieyama and Shogen Itokazu portrayed older and younger Gouken respectively in the TV series Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist.
Ryan Clements from IGN commented that Gouken is one of the best new characters from Street Fighter IV, recommending him highly due to his large number of combos and originality. Cam Shea of IGN AU held similar praise, adding "He just exudes power." Randolph Ramsay of GameSpot shared the sentiment, noting that while Gouken had the same fighting style as Ryu and Ken he was unique and powerful. On the other hand, Game Revolution reviewer Nick Tan criticized Gouken's moves for being much stronger than those of many other characters, making evading them almost impossible. GamesRadar mentioned that they want to see a matchup between Gouken and Jinpachi Mishima on their "12 matchups we want to see in Street Fighter X Tekken" list, exclaiming "Roided out Rumble in the retirement home!". In 2016, Screen Rant named Gouken the "7th Most Powerful Street Fighter Character", adding "As the master of Ryu and Ken, and the older brother of Akuma, it’s no surprise that Gouken would be a powerful figure in the Street Fighter universe." In their rankings of Street Fighter characters, Paste ranked Gouken at 54th place, adding "He can be an extremely punishing character, but still falls into the crowded shoto category and fails to be a more memorable fighter because of it." Den of Geek ranked Gouken as the "37th Best Street Fighter Character", stating "He’s like the antithesis of Dan and Sean in that his fighting style differentiates itself from Ryu, Ken, and Akuma, but in a way that makes him appear more masterful. More power and less wasted movement."